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Leviathan versus Beelzebub: Hobbes on the Prophetic Imagination

Date and Time: 
Thursday, June 6, 2019. 12:00 PM - 01:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Workshop: 
History of Political Thought 2017
Meeting Description: 

Avshalom argues that contextualizing Hobbes' theory of the imagination reveals a unique intervention in the scientific debates of the 17th century. This intervention is designed to solve a deep tension in Hobbes' philosophical system, between his scientific and political commitments. His scientific commitments and keen interest in optics and epistemology required him to take the study of imagination and its role in sense perception seriously. Hobbes worked within a framework of the imagination that can be traced back to Aristotle and Galen, and which dominated scientific thought until the seventeenth century. At the same time, this framework was used by those who attempted to provide a natural explanation for prophecy and divination. This fact posed a problem for Hobbes, who was equally committed to the advances of science and to guarding against the threat which prophets posed to political order and stability. This paper argues that Hobbes' theory of the imagination is an attempt to solve this tension. As such, it represents a unique intervention in scientific debate of the time, by constructing a scientific account of the human mind and imagination which is loyal to the leading ideas of the 'new science' on the one hand, while ruling out any potential use of the imagination in a natural explanation of prophecy on the other. By contextualizing Hobbes' theory of the imagination, we can see how it provides us with another element in his attempt to 'disarm the prophets', by ruling out any imagination-based naturalistic and scientific explanation of prophecy.

Avshalom Schwartz is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, studying political theory. His research is focused on the imagination, and more specifically, on the role played by the imagination in politics and political life. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Political Imagination in the Athenian Democracy,” investigates the various ways in which the imagination shaped, transformed and sustained the democratic institutions and culture of ancient Athens.

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